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Religious Diversity, Epistemic Humility, and Religious Tolerance


Spirituality and Higher Education
A National Symposium
November 18-19, 2005
Huston-Tillotson University
Austin, Texas


James Kraft, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Huston-Tillotson University

This paper uses developments in externalist epistemology and philosophy of mind as a foundation for an attitude of epistemic humility towards the beliefs one retains in light of religious diversity. The first section of this paper quickly summarizes the conditions under which epistemic humility tends to occur in both the philosophy of mind and externalist epistemology due to what shall be called the resolution problem, and the second section argues that these conditions are often obtained in the presence of religious diversity. In the conclusion we will see what implications the first two sections have for religious tolerance.

Externalism and the resolution problem

In the first section I argue that externalism, during the most challenging epistemic situations, implies a resolution problem which poses an extreme epistemic difficulty for externalist-based belief retention. I will only here say a little about what a resolution problem is. The resolution problem occurs when one thinks the world is one way, but the information about the world one’s faculties resolve is consistent with the world being an alternative way. The resolution problem can be formally stated as follows:

The belief that p is based on a level of detail of the content consistent with it being the case that some relevant alternative, q, obtains.

In cases of the resolution problem, the world is fully individuated such that either p or q is the case. Yet the faculties cannot adequately resolve the content of perception in order to know reliably the individuation. The problem is similar to the following situation: While just with my eyes I cannot see the rings of Saturn, with a telescope I can.

Religious diversity and epistemic humility

Resolution problems often show up when people take religious diversity seriously. When confronted by religious diversity one often finds the level of detail about an event or experience one’s faculties can resolve is insufficient to rule out competing beliefs. None of what I have said asserts that there can never legitimately be formed beliefs based on religious experiences which have enough resolution for detailed knowledge. I only argue here that resolution problems happen so frequently that we cannot, in situations of religious diversity, generally take at face value any of the competing beliefs alleged to be based on religious experience.

Some excellent thinkers disagree with my conclusion, including Richard Swinburne and Robert Koons, who believe it legitimate to think beliefs based on religious experience can be thought to have prima facie credulity (the phrase prima facie simply means to take something at face value, to accept something immediately without needing to question it).[i] They call this the principle of credulity, and they point out how this principle is firmly rooted in the most rigorous scientific methodology. If science uses this principle there should be no problem for religious people to use it as well. Robert Koons gives a version of the principle of credulity modified from Richard Swinburne, and I here paraphrase his formulation of the principle:

If it seems to one that something is present, and if this apparent presentation is not part of an established practice known to be an unreliable source of true beliefs, then one is prima facie justified in believing that the apparent presentation is actually occurring.[ii]

I accept as legitimate the principle of credulity described by Koons. We need it in our ordinary lives in order to get things done. I do, however, want to say the second imbedded antecedent generally does not obtain in the presence of religious diversity seriously considered. And, if the second antecedent is generally not fulfilled, then prima facie justification cannot be generally granted for believing that the proposed presentation is actually present. Rob Koons I believe will say most Christians with basic beliefs grounded in their own experiences and those of their community generally can affirm the second antecedent. I will claim that two types of resolution problems often prevent the fulfillment of the second antecedent of the principle of credulity, and so prevent the designation of prima facie justification.

In the interest of time I am only going to present the second more interesting resolution problem which often results when two conflicting beliefs are said to originate from processes alleged to have enough details to rule relevant alternatives out.[iii] To understand this second type of resolution problem better, we will compare it to a car wreck. Say the only two witnesses to an accident are the driver of one car, call her A, and the driver of the second car, call her B. A policeman gets to the scene and interviews both. Driver A says B ran a red light, and B says A ran the red light. When two stories conflict in this way, the officer scrutinizes each story for inconsistencies and other flaws. The officer tries to find a reason to give more credibility to one witness over the other. For example, if A staggers out of her car smelling of alcohol and is obviously drunk, the officer would have justification for accepting person B’s testimony. But let’s say the policeman’s investigation surfaces no details that favor one story over the alternative. In this case the officer must say the fault cannot be determined. We could even grant that the officer would have picked up on details that would get rid of the resolution problem, had the officer the needed training. For example, A was high on a hallucinating-causing drug, and signs of being high are clearly present for someone looking for them, but the officer doesn’t know the signs of the particular drug the person is on. Had the officer training in that drug recognition, he would have discerned a detail inconsistent with A’s testimony that she knows she had a green light, since people on hallucinating drugs are not reliable for such things. The level of detail the officer can resolve regarding the processes by which the witnesses reached their conflicting beliefs is not adequate to rule one way or the other. Because of a resolution problem, the second imbedded conditional of the principle of credulity is not satisfied, and so prima facie credibility cannot be granted.

Now we can see how this all relates to conflicting religious beliefs based on religious experience. Here is one actual situation of religious diversity which parallels the car wreck story. A Christian student of mine was challenged in class by a Muslim who said Jesus Christ did not die on a cross. This student has Christian basic beliefs based on his own religious experiences and those of his faith community. The Muslim talked about how this was a simple case of mistaken identity. The person on the cross looked like Jesus, but wasn’t. The Muslim student got out his Qur’an and recited Surah 4:157-158 which most Muslims believe says Jesus did not die on a cross. The Christian student was especially concerned because his father recently converted to Islam. He did an extensive study of historical arguments for and against the death of Jesus Christ on a cross. He said the Christian New Testament says there were many witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion, and he said most Muslims believe God, as described in the Qur’an, witnessed that Jesus did not actually die on the cross. The student said he could not find anything immediately wrong with the Muslim story, since he believes God often reveals himself to people and since he believes God can have God’s own reasons for allowing a deception. After all, God allowed many Americans during times of slavery to be deceived into thinking that African Americans are necessarily inferior to white people. The Christian story is based on eye witnesses at the foot of the cross, but the Muslim story is based on God’s witness as relayed to Muhammad. Even though the Qur’an was written much later than the Christian stories about the crucifixion, still the student thinks the Muslim story is plausible given his basic beliefs that God is the best witness, that God witnesses all events, and that God can tell people much later about what actually happened at a much earlier time. There are many similarities between Christian and Muslims beliefs as regards who God is and how we know him. The student also said, though not in these words, his faculties are not reliable for distinguishing between a world where Jesus died on a cross and one where he didn’t. Maybe there is evidence that he missed. Maybe decisive evidence will be uncovered in the future. And maybe someone else has a faculty for helping make the needed discrimination. But, he concludes there is no such faculty functioning properly in him.

It is important to see what happens to the Christian student’s basic belief in light of religious diversity. He had a basic belief that Jesus died on the cross grounded in his experience and the experience of his community. But now the presence of the Muslim view with all the incredible similarities shared with the Christian view makes him look more into the details of the formation of his basic belief. Once he looks more closely at the details of the process he finds them just as compelling as the details of the formation of the alternative belief. Like the policeman above, this student told me his investigation came to the conclusion that he could discredit neither the witness described in the New Testament nor that described in the Qur’an. So, he concluded, he cannot, on the basis of using his faculties of discernment alone, grant prima facie credibility to either detailed witness because of a resolution problem. He is still Christian. And he says he just has to take it on faith without thinking the credibility of the New Testament story is any better than that of Qur’an. He just has more humility about his belief that Jesus was crucified. He thinks he could be wrong. And he can understand how others can come to believe Jesus didn’t die on a cross. We can state the resolution problem clearly in terms of this example: The content of history is one way. Either Jesus died on a cross or he didn’t. But the level of resolution of the content accessible cannot lead to a definite conclusion.

I believe it is a widespread problem that people are thrown into a resolution problem when they take religious diversity seriously, a resolution problem which doesn’t allow them to give prima facie credibility to one over the other witness. I realize highly intelligent people like Robert Koons, Alvin Plantinga, and Richard Swinburne would say I am wrong. In response I would say I and many others find ourselves unable to give prima facie credibility to beliefs based on religious experience because the alternative beliefs are based on just as powerful religious experience, are able to give incredibly powerful explanations of the details I have access to, and are able to powerfully account for why others don’t see the details the right way.

Robert Koons is going to say there is no need to think there is a general inability to give prima facie credibility even in light of religious diversity. To this I would finally say, with a very deep respect I have gained over five years for his work both as a scholar and as a university professor, I just don’t think this takes religious diversity seriously enough. The perspective that there is no general problem for granting prima facie credulity I find equivalent to a policeman who gets to the scene of an accident and doesn’t, at least at the beginning before his investigation and before finding any obviously discrediting signs like drug abuse, give the two conflicting parties equal benefit of the doubt. Nobody wants a policeman to arrive at the scene of an accident one is involved in, and immediately give prima facie credulity to the other party when there are no obvious incriminating and inconsistent aspects of one’s own story. Yet that is equivalent to what is being done when people say, in light of religious diversity, prima facie credibility can be given to specific reports ruling out alternative religious perspectives. Many of the Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim friends I have are just too intelligent and too committed to seeking the truth at all cost for me generally to give prima facie credibility to any of their conflicting beliefs alleged to be based on their religious experiences, and alleged to rule out alternative beliefs.

I want to give a technical meaning to the phrase use above, namely, “taking religious diversity seriously.” In the sense in which we are using it, taking religious diversity seriously means that a person 1) understands the conflicting details of the witnesses of alternative religious perspective, 2) acknowledges the similar conditions in terms of which the alternative beliefs are formed, and 3) is aware of all the incredibly sophisticated ways alternative religious perspectives explain how opponents falsely come to their conclusions.

We can spell out three conditions in terms of which the resolution problem optimally thrives. Both sets of conflicting details of the different stories must be taken seriously. Second, one must not bring to the evaluation of the conflicting details prior beliefs which automatically make one take sides. For example, someone who thinks it impossible that the New Testament can be wrong about anything will never take the details of the Muslim story about the crucifixion seriously enough to find themselves in a resolution problem. Third, one must focus primarily on externalist manners of justification.

I suppose a critic of the view that the resolution problem is widespread, and Rob Koons is such a critic, will say there is no reason to think we need to bracket out all of our personal convictions attained before the presentation of the conflicting details of other religious perspectives, if those personal convictions were reliably attained. I agree with the critic to the extent that he says there are people who have initially formed within them beliefs whose conditions of production are so compelling and expansive as both to anticipate and eventually to overcome easily future challenges due to religious diversity. This phenomenon is what Alvin Plantinga calls an intrinsic defeater defeater.[iv] The intrinsic defeater defeater is a belief whose initial formation included details so powerfully vivid and compelling that it is far-reaching and it anticipates challenges. This type of belief intrinsically defeats the defeaters that come its way. To the critic I would say the intrinsic defeater defeater, however, is not a widespread phenomenon. Most people who claim to have beliefs based on the details of a religious experience that adequately rule out alternatives do not have the kind of intensely vivid and compelling details that will eventually allow them easily to overcome future challenges due to religious diversity. For example, the Christian student all his life had detailed reports from Christian scripture that Jesus died on a cross. But, the process that produced the belief in him that Jesus died on a cross was not vibrant and compelling enough to anticipate and answer the challenge brought to the fore in the serious confrontation with the Muslim. The process didn’t allow him to affirm the apostles could not have been deceived thinking it was Jesus on the cross when it wasn’t. Nor did the process afford him a good counter to the Muslim use of the principle that God can reveal later something that happened earlier.

The resolution problem that makes one unable to grant prima facie credulity thrives best when people leave behind, or bracket out, prior beliefs that make them side with one report over another. But the resolution defeater of the second antecedent of the principle of credulity also can thrive when prior basic beliefs turn out not to be intrinsic defeater defeaters. Such is the case with the Christian student described above. In a thought experiment Rob Koons will present to you, you will see how the Christian character he names Carol brings basic beliefs to the evaluation of conflicting religious experiences, basic beliefs that serve as intrinsic defeater defeaters and allow her to grant prima facie credulity to one religious experience over an alternative. The following is probably one of the most important differences between myself and Rob Koons: Rob Koons thinks the Carol-like situations more likely to happen than not, while I believe just the opposite. I think the serious confrontation with religious diversity more often than not initiates a self-examination of prior held basic beliefs ending in a resolution problem and the general inability of most Christians and Muslims to use the principle of credulity, whereas I think Rob Koons believes the presence of religious diversity generally doesn’t, or shouldn’t, lead Christians to re-examine the formation of their basic beliefs in a way that they are found wanting as intrinsic defeater defeater. Rob Koons, I believe, thinks for the most part Christians can trust their basic beliefs in the face of religious diversity such that they serve as intrinsic defeater defeaters, and so allow one to affirm the principle of credulity.[v] However, with my five years of experience teaching, I have concluded when most people with basic beliefs “take religious diversity seriously” they more likely than not are compelled to look back at their prior beliefs and, when they do, find the details of their formation not vivid and compelling enough to serve as intrinsic defeater defeaters.

Some may think this a much too ungenerous view of basic beliefs as under question more often than not in the face of religious diversity seriously considered. But certainly most people would say basic beliefs can be legitimately challenged by alternative reports. In response to Michael Martin’s Great Pumpkin challenge, Plantinga gives an example of how a basic belief is legitimately called into question by an alternative witness: Suppose I ask a friend how his hiking trip was. [vi] He tells me his hike in the Grand Teton was great. I acquire the belief that he was hiking in the Grand Teton, and I hold it in the basic way. I later talk to his wife, and she says that he was really in Wind River, and that he often confuses the two. When I take the wife’s alternative witness seriously I think of her as similarly situated, as intelligent, and I recognize the sophisticated way in which she accounts for the alternative details of her husband’s witness. All of this leads me to question my basic belief that my friend was hiking in the Grand Teton. All I am saying is that the alternative witnesses of religious diversity seriously taken are equivalent to me taking the wife’s alternative witness seriously and consequently bringing my basic belief into question.

The serious consideration of religious diversity brings one fact to face with the conflicting details of the witnesses of alternative religious perspectives, face to face with incredibly intelligent and expansive thinkers like Shankara and Nagarjuna, face to face with all the incredible sophisticated ways that alternative religious perspectives explain how people like me can fall into erroneous basic beliefs. One can refuse to reevaluate the reliability of one’s basic belief forming processes in light of conflicting religious reports. But this would seem to violate two epistemic principles, one offered by me and another by Rob Koons. The epistemic principle I present to you: the scrutiny of one’s basic belief forming process is a good thing for helping one get closer to the truth of the matter when a serious consideration of alternative reports shows those reports based on just as diligent, sophisticated, intellectually responsive, vigilant, and perceptually sensitive attempts at knowing the truth. Reformed epistemology tries to scare us from using this principle on our basic beliefs for fear that it will end in full-on skepticism. But, it is the sort of principle that drives science.

The refusal to scrutinize the reliability of one’s basic belief forming process in light of conflicting religious reports seriously taken seems to violate an epistemic principle that Rob Koons presents, and I paraphrase: If two testimonies are relevantly similar both in the processes involved and in the relevant circumstances, then they are mutually defeating.[vii] I have been arguing that the serious confrontation with religious diversity shows most people that many conflicting testimonies are relevantly similar both in the processes involved and in the relevant circumstances. Muslims appeal to many of the same epistemic principles Christians do. Many Muslims are incredibly sophisticated in their understandings of how other faith traditions go wrong and vigilant about keeping their epistemic house in order. When face to face with such formidable opposition it is hard to retain one’s basic beliefs. Like it or not, most of us are stuck with epistemic humility in the face of religious diversity seriously considered.

I am going to cut short my treatment of how the epistemic humility I talked about earlier tends to lead to religious diversity. Suffice it to say that when people realize how generally difficult it is to support one’s own perspective through religious experience in light of religious alternatives seriously taken, they often have more humility about their beliefs even when they retain deep convictions, and I argue, secondly, that this trend towards epistemic humility tends to lead to tolerance. You will see how Rob Koons thinks I am absolutely wrong on both counts. But, I look forward to defending both positions when you all present your concerns.

You will see how Stephen Phillips agrees with me that there are resolution problems that produce epistemic humility. But Stephen Phillips draws a very different conclusion from epistemic humility than I do. He thinks these difficult situations lead one to see that the different major traditions all have a sense of the infinite, and this sense of the infinite can serve as a springboard for going beyond mere tolerance to a sense of solidarity. Personally, I can’t take repose in the discovery of a common sense of the infinite just because I find that any common sense of the infinite is immediately overshadowed by radically incommensurable interpretations of the infinite.

I also want to thank Rob Koons and Stephen Phillips for discussing today their perspectives on what I take to be one of the most important issues facing university campuses today, what attitude should we take to the increasing religious diversity on our campuses, and how does this diversity relate to violence and tolerance?

In comparison to the situation with the student, consider an example of a successful intrinsic defeater defeater Plantinga mentions. Because of the burning bush experience Moses would be able to fight off potential projection theories like Freud’s view that religion is mostly a desire for a perfect father or Marx’s view that religion is like a drug.viii Moses’ belief that he was appeared to by God includes details so extremely vivid and compelling that they anticipate and defeat any projection theories. Or consider Plantinga’s NEH example of an intrinsic defeater defeater where the person accused of stealing has such a vivid and compelling memory of hiking in the woods on the day in question that he can easily fight of any accusations otherwise. People often have these intrinsic defeater defeater experiences in their ordinary lives with respect to things like hiking. But, people infrequently have them with respect to religious things like burning bushes.

I am not proposing that all our beliefs used as criteria for evaluating future situations of religious conflict need to be produced in us by an initial process which consciously takes into account every possible alternative. This overly stringent requirement would probably spell the end of any knowledge. I believe a Christian can have the ability to judge automatically as less credible the Muslim perspective that Jesus did not die on a cross on the grounds of an intensely vivid religious experience when reading the New Testament or when praying. But this ability is rare. In summary, to the critic I would say the intrinsic defeater defeater is possible, and sometimes does occur. It is just that it is not frequent. And with a low frequency of intrinsic defeater defeaters, the second antecedent of the principle of credulity often fails, and with this the general use of the principle of credulity fails as well.

Here is a third condition in terms of which the resolution problem optimally thrives: one must focus primarily on externalist manners of justification which, as we have seen, revolve around the reliability of the belief forming practice. We have seen that externalism in the philosophy of mind implies a resolution problem, and by parity, on e would expect this resolution problem to show up in the discussion of externalist ways of looking at religious experience.

Epistemic humility and religious tolerance

Finally, we can say how epistemic humility leads to religious tolerance. While there are different ways of motivating tolerance in light of religious diversity, this essay argues for a path to religious tolerance through epistemic humility. When people realize how generally difficult it is to support one’s own perspective through religious experience in light of religious alternatives, they often become more humble even when they retain deep convictions. Not everyone comes to epistemic humility as a result of a serious consideration of religious diversity. But, the argument presented here doesn’t depend on everyone attaining epistemic humility under the stated conditions. It only claims that there is a tendency in this direction. I will describe two types of people that I believe can tend towards religious tolerance in light of religious diversity and epistemic humility, one, the person who does not bring convictions already to the evaluation of conflicting beliefs based on religious experience, another who does.

Consider the person who doesn’t bring deep conviction already to the evaluation of conflicting beliefs based on religious experience. Here we have a person manifesting all three of the optimal conditions for the resolution problem. We have already seen this type of person in action when talking about the Christian student confronted with the Muslim interpretation of the crucifixion. As a result of the resolution problem induced by his serious consideration of the Muslim perspective he ended up with intense epistemic humility towards his retained Christian perspective. And this humility made the Christian student very tolerant of his father’s Muslim perspective that Jesus did not die on a cross. He can understand how his father came to believe what he did, and he cannot show the Christian perspective to be more credible based on historical evidence alone.

Even people who bring their deep religious convictions to the evaluation of alternative reports of religious experience can tend towards religious tolerance when the other two conditions for fostering the resolution problem exist, that is, when they take religious diversity seriously and when they see the limitations of externalist manners of justification. These people see that without their prior commitments they would be involved in a resolution problem. They feel fortunate that they have formed prior religious commitments that allow them to assign prima facie credibility. But, in taking the alternatives seriously, they can see how opponents come to believe something entirely different. And they recognize the limitations of externalist justification, that is, limitations of our ability to have reliable means of distinguishing between alternatives. They can see the other person as intelligent, even honestly searching. In seeing the limitations of externalist ways of knowing, and in understanding deeply how the person came to the alternative belief, even people who bring their prior convictions to the evaluation of conflicting religious beliefs tend to be less likely to be intolerant.

That might not seem like much, but I believe it is enough to cause pause in many potential situations of intolerance. Say one of the bombers on 9/11 said to himself, “I can understand how all these Americans can come to be so narrow-minded, and so consumer oriented given the limitations of our faculties for discerning the truth.” Whatever they thought was so bad about the US would be softened perhaps significantly enough by the realization, and so they would be less likely to carry through with the atrocious act.

i Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. Second ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 303-322.

ii His exact version runs as follows: “If it seems (doxastically) to S that an F is presented to S, and if this apparent presentation is part of an established practice that is not known by S to be an unreliable source of true beliefs, then S is prima facie justified/internally rational in believing that an F is actually present. (“Philosophy of Religion,” a course at the University of Texas, Austin, Texas, January 30, 2005.)

iii Martin points out, against Swinburne, how there is “a remarkable incompatibility” among beliefs based on religious experiences around the world: Martin, Michael. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, 177-179.

iv Alvin Plantinga, “The Foundations of Theism,” Faith and Philosophy 3 (1986), 311-313.

v The main difference between our positions is that he believes Christian with prior relevant basic beliefs generally are able to affirm the second imbedded antecedent of the principle of credulity, thus being generally able to give prima facie credulity to reports of Christian religious experience. I think this is sometimes possible, but certainly not generally the case.

vi Warranted Christian Belief, 343-344.

vii “Her belief in 6 is protected against itself being defeated by the conflict between Bob’s and Ali’s testimony. If the two testimonies were, by Carol’s lights, relevantly similar, both in the processes involved and in the relevant circumstances, then they would be mutually defeating. However, they are not similar for Carol, because she believes premise 1, which enables her to defend 6 from being defeated by 7.”